YouTube's Change in Subscriber Counts Sparks Its Own Drama
YouTube recently announced plans to change the way subscriber counts are displayed on the site. Beginning in August, instead of showing precise totals (i.e., 14,230,974), the video service will show a rounded number (i.e., 14 million).
Paris Martineau covers platforms, online influence, and social media manipulation for WIRED.
Unlike similar redesigns by Twitter and Instagram, which deemphasized follower count by shrinking the type in which it is displayed, YouTube’s change eliminates publicly available precise tallies, meaning that only the YouTube creator will know exactly how many accounts have subscribed to their channel. What’s more, YouTube said the change will also affect the data it feeds outside services like Social Blade, which display real time subscriber counts, view totals, and estimate YouTubers’ potential earnings.
Users took to Twitter starting Tuesday to lament the impact on the popular analytics service using the hashtag #SaveSocialBlade, which briefly trended in the US. Social Blade CEO Jason Urgo said the update would make all of the company’s YouTube data less precise.
YouTube declined to comment on whether the move was related to a wave of recent high-profile spats between influencers—including a viral feud between beauty YouTubers James Charles and Tati Westbrook and another real-life manifestation of the Subscribe to Pewdiepie meme—which were in part fueled by users tracking changes in creators’ subscriber counts. A company blog post said the goal of the change was to standardize the way it portrays subscriber counts.
The counts have long played a unique role in the YouTube community. Unlike on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, the metric isn’t just a measure of an account’s following or reach; it’s also viewed as a real-time manifestation of public sentiment. When high-profile YouTube influencers feud (and oh, do they feud), winners and losers are often determined by analyzing each creator’s stats in the hours after their respective videos are published.
Analyzing and commenting on the real-time subscriber counts of popular YouTubers is an entire content ecosystem of its own. Multiple channels exist solely to live-stream the Social Blade stats of other popular YouTube channels, and data from Social Blade is regularly cited by popular drama channels—YouTube’s version of entertainment bloggers—as evidence of how a particular influencer’s latest move was received by fans.
The change will also affect the dynamics of influencer marketing, where payouts for influencers hawking sponcon in videos is partially determined by subscriber count, says Sanders Kennedy, a popular YouTuber with more than 200,000 subscribers who makes videos chronicling the drama between some of YouTube’s biggest influencers. The availability of real-time subscriber counts and archives that show how a YouTuber’s audience and views changed each day gives creators—and the companies interested in partnering with them—an independent way to quantify their influence.
Without daily subscriber data and public tallies, Kennedy says, influencers will likely promote themselves based on metrics such as views, likes, and comments, all of which can be purchased through “engagement amplification services.”
Regardless, Kennedy says that for some YouTube creators the loss of precise metrics will be a welcome change. The community’s obsession with metrics puts an intense amount of pressure on creators and reduces their work to a handful of hard-to-control stats, he says.
“YouTube creators and fans can no longer use [the loss or addition of a couple hundred subscribers] as a weapon,“ says Kennedy. “Hopefully, it makes them focus on their content and what they are putting out … instead of on the day-to-day fluctuations of subscriber counts ”